Item of the Month
Women workers in the Wire Mill at the Ansonia Brass & Copper Company, in Waterbury, Connecticut, 1899
The American Brass Company, in Waterbury, Connecticut, was founded on December 14, 1899, with the consolidation of five smaller brass mills in the area. One of these companies was Ansonia Brass & Copper, which, as we can see in this photograph that was taken before the consolidation, employed women in the Insulating Department of the Wire Mill.
Connecticut had quite an illustrious history as a manufacturer of rolled brass and brass products in the late 1800s and early 1900s. William G. Lathrop's The Brass Industry in Connecticut (self published in 1909) tells us that in 1895 there were eighteen brass mills in the United States and the top six of these mills were all in Waterbury or Thomaston, Connecticut. Lathrop also tells us that by 1909 two-thirds of all brass used in the country was manufactured by the American Brass Company.
Ansonia Brass & Copper Company employed 1135 workers in 1895 and it is likely that many of them were recent immigrants to Connecticut. A "Racial Element Survey" done in the 1930s, and available in the Works Progress Administration surveys at the Dodd Research Center, tells us that Italian and Polish immigrants started coming to Waterbury in the 1890s, attracted to it by the factory jobs available.
So, knowing that, let's take a close look at the photo. What do we see? We see a factory shop floor, lit with daylight (the women must have been facing a window). We see seven women, some wearing dirty aprons to protect their dresses. At least one of the women looks very young, perhaps a teenager, and the other women a bit older. The woman in the back, the first one from the left, looks older still.
What else does it show? We see the style of dress worn by women who worked in factories. We see that women were hired to work with what looks like heavy machinery. We see no evidence of any kind of protective gear that is common today.
The American Brass Company Records is one example of the rich resources held in Archives & Special Collections providing evidence of the state's complex business history, a history that is intertwined with elements of the state's ethnic, women's, and labor heritage. So much information can be culled from one photograph -- imagine what you can find in a whole archive of photographs.
Information about the American Brass Company and other collections can be found in a listing of our Business History Collections. Many of our photographs are available at Connecticut History Online or in the UConn Libraries' Digital Mosaic.